Live: The Storyteller
In 2003, just before making an artistic leap that, at the time, we didn't know was coming, former Memphian Todd Snider released a concert album, Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms. Live albums might not seem like the best format for acoustic folksingers, but it was Snider's best album to that point, not only cherry-picking highlights ("Beer Run," "Side Show Blues") from spotty earlier albums in what was essentially a de facto "best of" but capturing an on-stage personality so sharp that Snider could easily ditch his guitar and hit comedy clubs and the lecture circuit instead. On Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, Snider's banter and often lengthy explanatory stories were usually better than the songs.
That's not quite the case on Live: The Storyteller, a follow-up, two-disc live album that packs 24 tracks into a nearly two-hour running time. Partly it's because the album doesn't live up to its title quite well enough (with only two set-piece stories per disc, The Storyteller could actually use a little more talk), but mostly it's because the songs are even better this time.
Appropriately, The Storyteller draws most of its material from the three albums and one EP Snider has released since Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, a stretch of work that's the best of his career. Snider promises early on that "if everything goes particularly well this evening, we can all expect a 90-minute distraction from our impending doom." And he gives a little bit more, with good readings of great songs like "Just Like Old Times" (two past-their-prime old friends getting reacquainted in a hotel room), "Looking for a Job" (a day laborer takes no guff), and the sing-along instant classic "Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight White American Males," which pokes gentle fun at both sides of the red/blue divide.
If the stories here don't overwhelm the songs, the stories are still the clincher that makes this album more than just a particularly engaging souvenir for fans. Snider goes into great detail about a wayward night back home in Portland, a particularly ballsy "fan," and his failed attempt at playing high school football. But the best story here is "KK Rider," his eight-and-a-half minute, spoken-word intro to the Jerry Jeff Walker cover "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance," where Snider recounts his time spent playing rhythm guitar in a Memphis country cover band while waiting for his first album to come out. The wild story he tells somehow involves a downtown pool hall, a rope swing, an unconscious woman, and two sleeveless .38 Special T-shirts. — Chris Herrington
The Drive-By Truckers
(ATO) Songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and their band go quiet here after last year's more uptempo The Big To-Do. The result is a relatively minor entry in a major band's catalog.
At first, Go-Go Boots feels too slapdash. The band reuses two tracks they recorded for a tribute album to blue-eyed soul man Eddie Hinton, from the band's native Muscle Shoals. And Hood, on the title track and "The Fireplace Poker," takes two looks at what seems to be the same seedy small-town crime — a minister who puts a hit out on his wife. These feel like a too-familiar return to the songwriting exercises on The Big To-Do.
But despite the absence of obviously major songs, more listening reveals subtle pleasures. Hood's opening tribute to a late female relative whose glamour owned his 5-year-old imagination is simple and lovely. And he provides two tough portraits of troubled men with guns: the Vietnam vet of "Ray's Automatic Weapon" and the human powder keg of "Used To Be Cop," which sounds like an offshoot of Neil Young's "Crime in the City."
Cooley, as always, is an indefatigable crafter of small, twisty character sketches packed with wordy comic wisdom ("Getting all excited finding nothing that was never there before is like bringing flowers to your Mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor"). Here he mines "Cartoon Gold," walks out the door to a country shuffle rhythm, and laments a girl from Pulaski, Tennessee, who hits the road for Hollywood and comes to regret it. — CH